From the moment the first man emerges wearing nothing but a towel nappy, to the moment their towels drop to reveal their derrières, Compagnie La Meute are playful, funny and completely absurd. Recent graduates of the Stockholm University of Circus and Dance, these French acrobats give us La Meute, the opening show of Circusfest 2014 at London’s Roundhouse. Littered with idosyncratic humour, this exhilarating show from Compagnie La Meute will have you on the edge of your seat and simultaneously laughing out loud.

Compagnie La Meute © Ben Hopper
Compagnie La Meute
© Ben Hopper

These six daring young men perform outrageous sequences of acrobatics, scaring not only their audience but likely frightening themselves as they egg one another on, laughing ever harder as they swing higher, leap further and take bigger risks. They begin by insinuating that they’re barely up to the job of an hour-long circus show – a few missed landings and second attempts accompanied by nervous glances pretty much convince the audience that we should be worried for their safety. However, they’re soon leaping ten foot in the air from the Russian swing, performing somersaults high above the stage and landing perfectly.

They are simply a group of boys messing around with their toys – almost like kids in a playground but with much bigger toys and further to fall. Not to mention stronger bodies. There’s a definite sense of naughtiness among them too – they’re not bashful about their bodies, and play with the threat of full on nudity. They adjust their loincloths pointedly during certain sequences, particularly when one man is jumping from one crotch to another, going along the line of his splayed out friends like stepping stones. One man labouriously pulls on a pair of tighty whities underneath his wrap-around towel skirt before going into a headstand.

La Meute at the Roundhouse © Ben Hopper
La Meute at the Roundhouse
© Ben Hopper

Their absurd humour penetrates every moment of the show, throughout which they create more and more precarious situations, as if setting their friends up to fail. One particularly memorable moment came as two men balanced on either end of a plank atop a stepladder (plus a soprano saxophone thrown into the balance, literally), another was seated atop an unstable tee-pee structure and a fourth crouched atop the Russian swing which has been halted with a wooden lean-to. While the fifth played the guitar, the sixth encircled each of the balancers, tying them together with a single red cord… eventually, he yanked on it hard and they all toppled, their outraged anger heightening the comedy of the moment. Their comic timing is impeccable – their long, slow set-ups ramp up the tension, provoking gradually more nervous laughter from the audience as the sequence builds, then causing an eruption of relieved applause when they pull of the trick and no-one gets hurt. Their ironic little flourishes of the hands – echoing Olympic gymnasts' displays after landing – are a cheeky parade of their confidence.

La Meute contained some wonderful musical elements were too – the company performed some themselves and played other sequences to recordings. Several of the group took the microphone, singing haunting tunes of wavering notes. One oblivious singer found himself slap-bang in the way of the Russian swing and was chivvied out of the way and slapped chidingly over the head by his fellows. Sound (and lighting too) was worked into the piece very successfully, the necessary technical aspects being playfully acknowledged by the performers rather than hidden from the audience.

Compagnie La Meute make classic circus accessible. Their routines will take all your assumptions about typical acrobatics, add a twist of idiosyncratic humour, a pinch of nail-biting tension and subvert them, creating something unique. Forget categorising these guys as circus or dance or theatre – this is contemporary performance at its most playful and adventurous.

****1